Review: Cage of Fireflies, Modern Japanese Haiku

It is early August 2020 in the Inner Western Suburbs of Narrm (Melbourne): days are getting warmer; in Coronet Street, Flemington, quite close to where I live, the plum trees have set pink blossoms a month before the (official) start of Spring; and the lockdown for the second wave of COVID-19 drags on, and on, with no end in sight. 

In between the working-from-home, and home-schooling the kids, and a few desultory efforts at “self-care”, I found time to pick up one of my favourite books of haiku: Cage of Fireflies by Lucien Stryk.

Frozen together

in one dream – 

sea-slugs.

Seisi (trans. Stryk)

There are lots of books available in English of the so called “big four” of Japanese haiku (Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki), but even books that give English readers access to a wider range of Japanese haiku writers usually end their selections with Shiki who died in 1902. Cage of Fireflies starts with Shiki, so it is one of the very few books available that give English readers an insight into Japanese haiku written in the twentieth century.

Some of the haiku in Cage of Fireflies bring what feels like a recognisable, traditional, haiku sensibility to modern objects like motorbikes, and train-tracks, and pianos:

Bird song – 

a thin dust

on the piano.

Hajime (trans. Stryk)

Others seem stranger, maybe more experimental, almost surreal:

My hair’s falling fast – 

this afternoon

I’m off to Asia Minor. 

Shinkichi (trans. Stryk)

Of course, we may be missing something in translation here, but I find Shinkichi’s haiku as translated by Stryk evocative, nonetheless. 

It could be that lockdown, and day after day of gloomy news, is starting to get to me, because the haiku that stood out to me, on this reading through of Cage of Fireflies, were the ones which seemed to touch on loneliness, futility, ill-health, and death:  

My voice

blown back to me

on autumn wind.

Meisetsu (trans. Stryk)

Cricket chirp – 

now

my life is clear.

Hakuu (trans. Stryk)

Death at last – 

little by little

fading of medicine odors.

Dakotsu (trans. Stryk)

Into the cage of

fireflies, mostly dead,

I send a breath.

Kasho (trans. Stryk)

References:

Cage of Fireflies, Modern Japanese Haiku, Lucien Stryk (Trans.), Swallow Press, 1993.